This week I had two conversations that reflect the two opposite opinions about how faith ought to work. The first conversation was with a woman who has endured years of abuse at the hands of conservative religion. As a lesbian, she has been denigrated and judged and condemned all in the name of Jesus Christ. Despite those significant obstacles, she has come to accept herself, but it’s never been easy for her. Years of religious abuse have made her spiritually timid and afraid. She reached out to me this week and asked me to tell her once again that she is OK, just as she is. And so I told her that, as forcefully and as lovingly as I knew how. At first that seemed like enough, but a few minutes later she said: “It sure would be nice to know that I heard the right word of God.” She longs for an air tight assurance that she has chosen the true path. And there are lots of people like her.
The second conversation I had was with a man who was raised without religion and yet in this middle part of life, he feels strangely drawn to Christianity. He told me that he is fascinated by the Bible’s stories and the person of Jesus, yet he has plenty of doubts. And what he wanted from me was almost the exact opposite of what the woman wanted. He didn’t want assurance. He wanted the freedom to ask questions. And he wanted to know if this congregation would be a safe place for that. --These two people are on a spiritual path, but the roads they have taken could not be more different.
The dominant voice in American religion is the one that the woman hears. Conservatism is in the habit of serving up large helpings of assurance. In the church of my childhood, we had all the answers. And so faith was reduced to a series of declarative sentences. As a child I regularly heard people say things like: “Jesus is the answer!” without ever saying what the question was. They also declared things like: “You must be born again!” and “Prayer changes things!” And when the mood was darker, when the sins were more pronounced, when the sinners were more obstinate, then they said foreboding things like “Turn or burn.”
There was a lot of judgment in that expression of Christianity, but the flip side of judgment was that there was also a lot of assurance. Just sign on the dotted line of correct dogma and then maintain that stance. But is faith really a set of proposition that one must assent to? Is that the kind of faith that Jesus preached and modeled?
In his wonderful book “Jesus is the Question” UCC pastor and theologian Martin Copenhaver challenges the idea of faith as neat dogmatic statements. Copenhaver points out that in the four Gospels, Jesus asks other people a total of 307 questions. Jesus himself is asked 183 questions. And of those 183 questions, Jesus only answered between three and eight of them. That means that, in true Jewish rabbinical fashion, Jesus is nearly 40 times as likely to ask a question as he is to answer one. And that’s astonishing, especially if you believe that faith is mostly about finding the correct answer.
In the Gospel of John, the very first words that Jesus ever speaks to any of his disciples are in the form of a question. One day John the Baptist saw Jesus approach the river Jordan and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” And then John preached a sermon about why he called Jesus the Lamb of God. The next day, Jesus came to the river again, and John once again declared to two of his disciples, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” And when these two disciples of John heard this, they began to follow Jesus. But Jesus turned to them and asked, “What are you looking for?” These were his first words to his first followers. And that’s a question that Jesus has never stopped asking any of us who follow him: “What are you looking for?”
Instead of answering Jesus’s question directly, the men asked where Jesus was staying. Now, at first that seems an odd response. But upon closer inspection, we see in their response something true about how we learn spiritually. Spiritual truth is revealed not so much in facts and figures, books and lectures and sermons but in the act of staying with Jesus; of spending time with Jesus. “Where are you staying, Jesus?” And to their apparent non sequitur, Jesus simply replies, “Come and see.”
I wonder if they were disappointed with that answer. I wonder if we are disappointed by such an illusive answer. I remember the first time a professor refused to tell me in detail what the assignment was supposed to produce. She was vague and hemmed and hawed and seemed purposefully ambiguous. I was frustrated, so I made an appointment with her after class, but she persisted in mystery. She wanted me to figure it out because she knew that in figuring it out for myself that I would discover a whole new way to learn. I had watched her and listened to her lecture and read the materials, but what she wanted was for me to dig deeper.
Now just because she forced me to use my own mind didn’t mean that the professor didn’t have an expectation. And just because Jesus asked far more questions than he ever answered does not mean that there is no such thing as spiritual truth. Jesus didn’t preach relativism. Jesus preached mysticism. Jesus preached the inward journey. The faith of Jesus is about confronting the questions and finding the answers deep within yourself.
Once Jesus was asked when the Kingdom of God was coming and he replied: “The Kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ For in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21) It’s already within you. And the surest way to get any of us to look inward is to ask us hard and probing questions.
A legendary theology professor was giving his last lecture before retirement. He was beloved and so the lecture hall was packed, as students wanted to hear his last wise words about God and faith and the future. When he finished his lecture, there was a standing ovation. He smiled and put his notes in his folder and made his way to the door. But just before exiting, he turned back to the class of budding theologians and promising pastors and said: “Just remember, Jesus is the question for all of your answers.”
Jesus is the question for all of our answers. Does that leave you a little unsettled, unsatisfied, and longing for more? Good, because I think that’s exactly the point.